I had a wonderful time on Saturday at BookBar in Denver with fellow finalists for the Colorado Book Awards. Many thanks to Wooden Stake Press, BookBar, and the Colorado Humanities Center for the Book for all you do for literature in Colorado.
In March I wrote about the suffering of Irish immigrants in the 19th century as a bit of a backstory for the Dugans in the Songs. I think it’s remarkable how that story has parallels throughout history, including the wave of Hispanic immigration of the last decade or so to the United States, but also to the recent tragedies African immigrants have experienced in the Mediterranean as they attempt to find relief in Europe. In the face of desperation, people show amazing courage and risk their lives for the chance of a better life.
But the similarities between Irish and Mexican peoples in American history don’t stop there. Though Mexico is now a great allay to the United States, in the decade before the Songs open we were at war. Much of the West was ceded by Mexico in 1848 in the treaty that ended this conflict, including part of my home state of Colorado. And, in a little-known but fascinating turn of events, an Irish brigade in the US Army defected to Mexico during the war. In Mexico they would come to be known as San Patricios, the Saint Patricks.
Joseph James Hawkins mentions them in the First Song, as he would have faced them in the Battle of Buena Vista during his service in the Missouri Volunteers before the novel begins. He calls them “a bunch a traitors,” and the US Army, of course, tended to agree. In perhaps the larges mass execution in US History, thirty were hanged with little documented court proceedings. The Mexicans viewed, and continue to view them as heroes.
Why did the defect?
There are a number of explanations, all of which probably played a role, but I tend to agree with Joseph James’s very simple, human explanation in the First Song: “You San Patricios traitors just as soon fight with the Mexicans, damn Catholics, than anyone else.” Catholicism, not just its doctrine but its cultural underpinnings, and the impoverished state of Catolicos in Mexico, I think explains it. In Mexico the Irish saw closely knit Catholic communities and families suffering from an invading army and chronic impoverishment. The Irish were second class citizens in the US and its army–sometimes forced to attend Protestant services, an act they would have abhorred, it being so reminiscent of their persecution in Britain. In Mexico they saw a Catholic nation, and wanted to be a part of it.
And so they are. No less than a half million Mexicans of Irish descent live in metropolitan Mexico City, and while it’s not nearly as common as it is in the US, Irish ancestry is celebrated in Mexico.
And in this I see great irony. American culture once reviled the Irish, and in just a few decades this was completely undone. Irish Americans are now a huge part of our society, its governance, and our overall culture. Seven million of us. But there are eleven million Americans from Mexico.
One day they will be just as big a part of America, and still, today, we erect walls to keep them out. Only history can show us the true folly of such policy.
The US didn’t simply welcome the Irish with open arms, by any means–but in time, our arms became nearly indistinguishable from one another. I think in time the same will happen with the Hispanic diaspora in America. The values we share–centered around liberty, family, and a New World ethos–will triumph.